Was Jesus white, Black, or another race entirely? Go inside the complicated history of what color Jesus of Nazareth may have been.
Jesus has been the object of veneration and worship in the West for nearly 2,000 years, to the point that his mildest utterances (correctly attributed or not) have occasionally formed the basis of whole religious movements.
As Jesus’ following spread over time — sometimes via devoted missionary work and sometimes by comparatively less saintly methods — people across multiple societies have cast images of Jesus in their image.
Doing that is relatively easy since, believe it or not, the Bible contains no description of Jesus’ physical appearance. We do, however, know a thing or two about demographics, which means that if Jesus did exist where and when the Bible says he did, he certainly was not white. And yet today, we envision him as just that. Why?
Early Depictions Of Jesus
As far as anybody knows, not even an amateur attempt to depict Jesus can be found from a time before about the second century. This has a lot to do with the position Christians held in Roman society at the time: though conditions varied from place to place, it’s fair to say that following Jesus was not a career-enhancing move until sometime in the fourth century.
Prior to that, most Christians depicted their lord symbolically with the ichthyos, the “Jesus fish” you’ve seen on a million hatchbacks, or the Chi-Rho, which combined the first two letters of the Greek Christos as a kind of secret shorthand to help believers find each other and their places of worship.
Given this environment, it’s perhaps understandable that what is arguably the first depiction of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, is a bit of satirical graffiti scratched in plaster by a second-century Roman dudebro giving his friend a hard time:
Positive depictions of Jesus date from around the third century. In this fresco, found in the St. Callisto catacomb in Rome, Jesus is shown as a Good Shepherd with olive skin and totally contemporary dress for the time and place. Jesus is even shown without a beard, which was common among Romans at the time, but unheard of for Judean men.
The catacomb where it was found probably began as a Roman family tomb, but expanded into a place of burial and secret worship after the family converted to Christianity. It may also have served as a convenient bolt-hole during the Great Persecution of Diocletian in the late third century.
Already in this image, possibly the oldest surviving attempt to represent him, Jesus is clearly being depicted as if he had been a Roman of Italian or Greek extraction. While the modern concept of representational art might look askance at this sort of thing, remember that Jesus had previously been depicted as an abstract symbol or arcane combination of letters.
In a real sense, what Jesus would have actually looked like in life was irrelevant to the people who met under this fresco. What was important was the connection they felt to him and to each other.
Depictions Of Jesus’ Race Under The Romans
With the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century, Christianity was free to come out of hiding. More than that, with a friendly emperor and extremely devout queen mother (St. Theresa), being a Christian was suddenly the path to power and influence in an economy that ran mainly on sucking up to wealthy patrons. Artists tore loose:
This image was painted for a villa that belonged to Constantine himself, and it was presumably painted by a well-connected and highly regarded artist.
Showing Christ seated on a throne between Peter and Paul, most elements of traditional Christian iconography are already present. Jesus has a halo, he’s in the top-center of the composition, his fingers are held in a benediction, and he’s clearly European. Everybody is wearing Greek dress, and Jesus has the wavy, flowing hair and beard that he still has in every movie today, 1,700 years later. Here’s a detail of his face:
This set of features — halo, benediction, white as snow — became so firmly established in both the Roman and Byzantine churches that it then spread back into the Middle East as Jesus’ official portrait, even among brown-skinned people whom you would expect to revere a more Mediterranean-looking savior:
Pictures of a white Jesus cropped up all over the Empire around this time. In this one, etched into a glass plate and found in Spain, Jesus is again depicted as beardless – common in Iberia, but rare by this time in the Greek parts of the empire – and carrying a cross. Again, all of the common elements are here: the halo, the central placement, and the instruction of apostles.
The Modern Look Of The White Jesus
The generally accepted (white) appearance of Jesus was firmly established by the reign of Constantine. Unlike other images of, for example, Constantine himself, the template for depicting Jesus barely changed in the 18 centuries after it took shape. This is almost certainly the result of two pressures: religious conservatism and artists’ desire to actually sell their work.
Regarding the former, church authorities have historically been resistant to any kind of change — especially throughout most of the period we’re dealing with (think crusades and burnings). This tendency exerted tremendous pressure on ambitious young artists who probably didn’t want “burned for heresy” to appear in the footnote to their entry in an art history textbook.
Second, and less morbidly, artists have always wanted to reach the public and tell a story with their work — it makes for a more effective painting and thus a longer-lasting, more successful career.
Whether it’s a quick sketch, a mosaic floor, or the Blessing Christ by Raphael, using an agreed-upon likeness of a powerful figure like Jesus just made it easier to reach a mass audience, especially in a time of general illiteracy.
Today, Jesus is most likely to be depicted in iconography and film. The icons, which are usually smallish cards that can be carried or displayed in the home, mostly follow the old artistic conventions of the late Roman Empire, with few changes since the era of the Council of Nicaea.
The film depictions are a little looser – as befits a much newer medium – but still the actors chosen for the role of Jesus are about as white as it gets. Jeffrey Hunter, Ted Neely, and Haaz Sleiman have all played Jesus in film, and only Sleiman is even remotely from the same region as the story was set. Even so, behold – the Lebanese actor who played Jesus:
While it can be annoying for purists who like to point out that Jesus of Nazareth probably bore a closer physical resemblance to Osama bin Laden than his flaxen, lily-white depiction today, every culture that received a visit from missionaries has been guilty of doing the same thing — they just weren’t as influential as the Christian powers that be.
While the Empire eventually faded, one of its most wildly exaggerated and appropriated offerings — a white Jesus — stuck around.